On the terrace of the grand, British colonial E & O Hotel, evening light flickers through the coconut grove as a warm breeze drifts in from the Straits of Malacca.
I’m sipping a gin and tonic, watching the sun go down.
This has become one of my regular habits since moving to the island of Penang, off the west coast of mainland Malaysia, over a year ago.
Like other retired and working expats, my wife, Lisa, and I love it here. The cost of living is low, Malaysians are friendly and hospitable, and Penang is the country’s number one tourist destination, filled with restaurants, bars and historic mansions.
We chose Penang because it’s a small island and being near the ocean was important to us as we have a small sail boat. The climate is tropical year-round. On the breathtaking jungle trails leading up Penang Hill, large groups of butterflies and monkeys are common.
And you’ll find plenty of white sandy beaches if you just want to relax. We’re never bored. There are 18 official public holidays a year and just as many cultural events every few months. It’s also close to the rest of Asia and flights are cheap. Internal flights are even cheaper.
Since moving here, we have been to Bali four times and Cambodia once. The roads here are the best I’ve seen anywhere in the world and we’re only a 20-minute drive from the mainland and a four-hour drive from Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur. Penang however, has everything we need—modern shopping malls, movie theaters, every type of restaurant and bar you can imagine…and probably some you can’t.
There was no culture shock either. Here we’ve found everything we had at home and everyone speaks English. The local population is 51% Chinese, 40% Malay and 9% other, which includes us.
The locals are friendly, relaxed and it’s an easy place to live. The expat community is large and extremely active. Alliance Francais shows a free world movie every Friday night, the Irish Association members golf every week and the International Women’s Association seems to sponsor some activity daily.
Penang is famous for its food and well known throughout Asia for its medical tourism. One expat friend of ours is a plastic surgeon at a local hospital and told us that two planeloads of medical tourists arrive daily, 52 weeks of the year. And there’s a good reason. The cost of visiting a hospital here for a minor procedure is one tenth of what we would pay back home and their expertise is second-to-none.
I fell off my bike last week and had a golf-ball sized trauma, as well as a Texas-sized bruise on my inside thigh. The Adventist Hospital’s Emergency department saw me immediately, and 20 minutes later I was on my way, having had a tetanus injection and a prescription for anti-inflammatory ointment. The total cost of my visit was just $8.
We live in a spacious 2,100-square-foot apartment with three bedrooms and three bathrooms (it cost s$1,000 a month to rent). We have a carport, a swimming pool and well-equipped gym. We also have a maid that comes once a week for four hours at a cost of $12.
Renting apartments here is cheap, and a 1,000-square-foot apartment with sea views, a pool, tennis and squash courts and a gym rents for as little as $500 a month. Of course you can pay more, and we do, but you can also pay less. For example, friends of ours rent a 1,000-square-foot apartment without the sea views, with the same facilities, for just $300 a month.
Editor’s note: Read the full and unabridged Malaysia article—including detailed costs and budgets—in the current issue of International Living magazine. You can subscribe here.